The Edge Episode 6: Are Cities Over?

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As reopenings stall and some companies extend work-from-home indefinitely, Leah and Laura wonder what the future of cities looks like. Will all the yuppies flee to the countryside? Will mom-and-pop retail survive? Architect and professor Vishaan Chakrabarti talks about the major problems facing our cities, why we should ban cars altogether, and how the pandemic may create opportunities for big change. 

Show Notes:

This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington and produced by Coby McDonald. 

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Brooke Kottmann, and California magazine interns Maddy Weinberg, Boyce Buchanan, and Dylan Svoboda. Art by Michiko Toki, and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript:

LAURA SMITH: Hi, Leah. How was your Halloween? 

LEAH WORTHINGTON: Honestly? It wasn’t very Halloween-y. 

LAURA: Yeah there weren’t many kids out, trick-or-treating, or anything this year. No parties. 

LEAH: Yeah, same. My boyfriend and I dressed up like witches and watched Scream.

LAURA: [Laughs] That actually sounds really nice. But would it make your Halloween a little Halloweenier if I told you a … ghost story? 

LEAH: Uh, you just said “weenier.”

LEAH: [Laughs] But yeah. I love ghost stories.

LAURA: It’s more of a ghost town story. 

LEAH: Okay, well … is it spooky at least? 

LAURA: Yeah, I would say it’s a bit frightening. 

LEAH: Alright tell me.

[SPOOKY MUSIC]

LAURA: So my friends, who we shall call Bob and Belinda, are trying to buy a house in the Bay Area. 

LEAH: I’m already scared.

LAURA: Yes, as you may have heard, this is one of the most expensive places to buy a home in the country. Housing prices are high enough to scare the wits out of anyone of the 99 percent. So Bob and Belinda have been looking for months. And they don’t have a ton of money, so they looked everywhere. They looked at in-law units behind people’s houses; they looked at tiny houses that had no closets. And it got them thinking … .

LEAH: That closets are really great!

LAURA: Yeah, well sure, but also, “Why do we live here?” It’s a pandemic, their offices are remote, they can work from anywhere. So what if they used this moment to reimagine their lives? What if they desert the city altogether and move somewhere rural where they can actually afford a house? And, you know, start that chicken coop they’ve been wanting, get a little more space to move around without having the financial jaws of death constantly nipping at their heels.

LEAH: I just love that we urbanites think that country living means, like, having a few chickens and just moving around. Like, strolling around on a farm. 

LAURA: Yeah, with a wheat stalk in their mouth.

LEAH: [Laughs] Right.

LAURA: It’s true. But the desire to live in a quieter, cleaner, less chaotic place, closer to nature and away from the concrete jungle is real. And the pandemic seems to be making that kind of move seem more practical for a lot of people. Like, lots of peoples’ offices have closed, and they’ve realized that they can do their jobs just as well remotely. And, sure, a lot of those offices will presumably, hopefully, reopen in the near future, but some companies have gone remote … forever … like Twitter and Square. And others like Facebook and Microsoft have announced they’re extending their work-from-home program.

LEAH: And we’ve got applications like Slack and Zoom and Trello, etc., etc. There are just a million ways to work remotely these days. 

LAURA: Yeah, and a lot of people—like Bob and Belinda—are asking themselves why they live in a city where the average one-bedroom costs more than $3,000 a month when they could pay a lot less to live in a more beautiful place and just … work from home.  

LEAH: Yeah, I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in their pajamas all day, especially if you could do it from, like, an apple orchard in upstate New York?

LAURA: Yeah, and apparently a lot of people are pulling the trigger. Of course, I should acknowledge, that this is an extremely privileged position. Like not everyone can afford to move or is able to. But I’ve been seeing all these headlines about young people fleeing cities en masse. And it makes me wonder … are cities over? Are we all going to act on our pastoral or—dare I say—suburban fantasies? 

LEAH: Just me and my chickens strolling down a dirt road … .

[MUSIC]

LAURA: This is The Edge. A podcast brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: Where we dare to imagine the future in all of its scariness and possibility—and get UC Berkeley experts to let us peer into their crystal ball.

LAURA: I’m your host Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.

[MUSIC]

LAURA: So, today we’re talking about what cities might look like after the pandemic is over.

LEAH: Is this an opportunity to completely reimagine our urban landscapes? Or will they just become ghost towns, as we flee to the countryside and trade in our Clipper cards for chicken coops?

LAURA: Personally, I want both.

LEAH: Of course you do. Anyway, our guest today is a bit of an architecture celebrity.

VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: I’m Vishaan Chakrabarti. I actually have two roles: I’m the dean of the College of Environmental Design, which is the school of architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture here at the University of California, Berkeley. And then I run an architecture firm. I’m the creative director for an architecture firm that I founded five years ago called Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, or PAU for short, in New York. 

LAURA: So, being desperate city-dwellers with great fear of the unknown, we asked Vishaan to dust off his crystal ball and tell us how the pandemic is going to affect our cities.

VISHAAN: Pandemics have shaped a lot of cities over time. Cholera, tuberculosis, even the plague, shaped a lot of things like modern zoning codes and modern health codes and sewage systems and all sorts of other things. So there’s a long history of pandemics influencing the way in which we build cities. What pandemics have never done, and I don’t think will ever do, is defeat the city—you know, this idea that cities will stop being relevant or attractive because of pandemics. I don’t think human history supports that conjecture at all.

LEAH: Which is not to say that cities are all fine and great and should continue on as is. Vishaan explained that there have long been big problems in the way we structure and inhabit our urban centers. 

VISHAAN: To me, this pandemic opened up the raw underbelly of what we all have been living with for decades, in this country and other places, where we believe the private sector was gonna take care of everything. And, instead, we’ve ended up with such an unequal society that’s so racially and geographically segregated that we stopped seeing the parts of our cities that are vulnerable. This pandemic has really shown us, well, here’s the sort of territory where a lot of this inequity has become manifest, right? And that’s where I think we need to focus a tremendous amount of attention.

LAURA: So how could cities be built differently to avoid that in the future?

VISHAAN: I’m not a public health expert, but what I do know is that a huge component of public health is housing. And if housing is unaffordable, you know, about 40 percent of the renters in the United States are rent burdened—which means that they’re spending more than a third of their income on their rent. And … that creates enormous stress. It creates enormous stress for young people; it creates even more stress for people with children and people with underlying medical conditions. It’s just taking a stressful situation and just making it worse and worse. I’m a really, really big believer in rethinking public housing. You know, our college in Berkeley was co-founded by an architect named William Wurster. And his spouse, Catherine Bauer, and Catherine Bauer wrote the National Housing Act for FDR. She advised five presidents and, basically, invented the idea of public housing in this country.

LAURA: Whoa, I’m about to google the bleep out of Catherine Bauer.

LEAH: [Laughs] I know. Me too.

VISHAAN: We need to restart this conversation and, hopefully, with a new administration in Washington. There needs to be a completely different attitude towards housing and infrastructure. Because I’ve been hearing since the 1980s, since the Reagan era, that the private sector was just going to take care of all of our needs, right, that we didn’t need an activist government. We didn’t need a government involved in things like housing: That’s just about inefficiency and corruption. And we’re gonna let the private sector take care of it all. And, like, it’s been a disaster for people who are on the more precarious side of our economy. We don’t have the money for public housing, but people who have a million-dollar house with a mortgage get their interest deducted from their taxes, and then everyone says, “Oh, we don’t have the money for poor people.” You know, it’s just crazy.

LAURA: Inequality in cities is a long-standing problem that’s both very visible and also deeply entrenched, so we asked Vishaan to explain one of his more controversial ideas for building a more equal urban future … which is banning cars in the centers of major cities.

VISHAAN: I just don’t think most major world cities today should have lots of private cars running around in them because private cars take up so much space that they don’t allow for more equitable forms of mobility in transit. We can move a lot more people on small, zero-emission electric buses that ran all over regions, not just in the heart of cities, but around cities so that, like, the people we’re calling essential workers today can get to where they’re going not having to negotiate through all of this private-car traffic. And you could serve transit deserts, which are often Black and brown communities. They don’t typically have the same levels of mass transit, and so forth, if you ban private cars in the heart of major cities. You would have a lot less childhood asthma and other kind of issues that result from car commutation moving through urban neighborhoods. And also when you reduce private-car demand, what you do is you actually increase the quality of people’s commutes. And you lower the time that it takes if you’re on a bike or a bus or whatever. And that means that actually the amount of territory around the city the region can actually grow. And that means the places that are typically less expensive can now be sort of closer to the city because the commute’s quicker. 

LAURA: And so if we’re picturing how this works, so streets in the main parts of cities would only be available to like buses or trains or bikes and pedestrians—

VISHAAN: —And freight vehicles. So, like, obviously you need to be able to drop off retails, establishments, and places people need to get food deliveries and their Amazon deliveries and all of that. I think you could still have taxis and rideshare. Although, I was talking to Trevor Noah, and he was arguing with me that I shouldn’t do rideshare either—that we should really ban them altogether.

LAURA: Wouldn’t that be nice to just very casually be able say, “The other day, I was talking to Trevor Noah”?

LEAH: Well, now we can say that the other day we talked to someone who just the other day talked to Trevor Noah. Also, I just really love that Trevor Noah is an advocate for car-free cities. Like, how cool is that?

LAURA: I know! Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all.

VISHAAN: The thing is, private cars take up much more room than any of those other modes of transit that we just talked about. Right? And so when you eliminate them, and I really mean eliminate them, you just create so much more space for all the other more egalitarian forms of transportation, especially for people in wheelchairs and other people with disabilities. Most cities have, like, public-van services and other services that are specifically for people who are disabled, and so all of that needs to operate on city streets. What we use today for parking, parking lots, other things—that’s just a massive amount of room. Most cities about a third of their space is taken up by roadbed. We should be using that in a more equal way. And in a more ecologically conscious way. 

LAURA: I’m ready to ban the cars. I want them out. Is there any risk that, in doing this, if it wasn’t done simultaneously with a push to increase public transport that working people and the very people you’re concerned about could be stranded?

VISHAAN: I think there’s a huge risk of them not only being stranded but being violently opposed to it because they would get stranded. The day after something like this happens, you have to have the buses, you have to have the mass transit ready to go. You have to have the streets painted for bike lanes and other things, so you can’t just turn off the spigot overnight. 

LEAH: Is this really possible? And what will it take to get there? Like I’m thinking, you know, as a result of the pandemic in my neighborhood in San Francisco, I’m seeing that streets are being closed down to make room for more foot traffic and more bike traffic, and restaurants are spreading out into the street and putting out tables—and we love it! You know, at first everyone’s like, “Oh, God, where are the cars gonna go?” But turns out cars find a way, and everyone is so happy we have all this space to walk. So will that stay? And … then what’s next?

VISHAAN: What’s interesting is cities control their streets almost completely unilaterally. A mayor doesn’t have to go ask a governor or the federal Department of Transportation to close down the street. They can just do it, which is what you’re witnessing in your neighborhood, right? When I worked for city government, we had a transportation commissioner named Janette Sadik-Khan who would just sort of temporarily take over—“temporary” in quotes—pieces of street and give it back to people for public use. And then over time, it got so popular—like you said, cars would just figure out other ways to get where they were going—that those things became permanent. 

LAURA: So if San Francisco or Berkeley or New York started this today, how long do you think it could take?

VISHAAN: Well, first of all, I don’t think Berkeley is dense enough as a place where you could ban cars. It’s too spread out. I think the heart of New York City, and not even all of New York, I’m talking about Manhattan, maybe parts of Brooklyn. But there are huge swaths of New York that are single-family homes, and you really can’t ban cars in those neighborhoods yet. Like that’s just going too far. I think you have to go in the places where things are kind of, like, tightly knit together. And you need that additional breathing room. And where people really can walk down to the corner and pick up a lot of their daily provisions. So I think if you just have these pilot tests, and you do it for a weekend, you do it for Friday, you do it for a something, and then what you’re gonna see, I think, is this extraordinary uprising of everyday people, you know, senior citizens, people with small kids, people with disabilities, who love it.

LAURA: Leah, I just want to pause for a minute because that’s a really beautiful image: like ordinary people coming back to reclaim the streets and share it together. I’ve seen this a lot in other countries, and it’s really just makes a city great. Just people coming together to share space. 

LEAH: And it really does seem possible, especially after what we’ve been seeing happen because of this pandemic. Which is sort of ironic because we’re making these changes—you know, blocking off car traffic, letting restaurants come out into the street—ostensibly in order to stay further away from each other. But ultimately it may help us come back together within our small, local communities. And I just love it. I love it.

LAURA: If you can’t see, I’m pounding my fists on the table, shouting “Give us more! Give us more!”

LEAH: “Please, sir, can I have some more … car-free streets?” [Laughs]

LAURA: Exactly, Oliver Twist. If I’m going to be trapped at home for the foreseeable future, I want to be able to enjoy it! Otherwise, I might as well just move in with my parents in Virginia. Which is … their dream. 

LEAH: Yeah, my mom’s too. But, yeah, the thing is a lot of us are going to be remote for the foreseeable future. Like, we just found out that we’re probably not going back to the office until June of next year. So something I really want to know is: If companies like Twitter are extending their work from home indefinitely, what incentive do people have to stay in crowded city centers? And, interestingly, Vishaan seemed to think that getting rid of cars might actually help with that.

VISHAAN: I think one of the things that is different than past pandemics is this whole remote work thing. And I don’t think most people enjoy remote work very much. And I think we are going to go back to face-to-face work for most industries, but I think some industries will definitely have a certain level of that. And so cities need to stay competitive in the face of that. And part of how they can stay competitive is increase their quality of life. And this car thing is a way to just really improve quality of life.

LAURA: I’m concerned that a lot of that for me is small businesses and having walkable small businesses nearby. And I’m just concerned that I’m already seeing a lot of them not survive this pandemic.

VISHAAN: You’re absolutely right. I’m hugely concerned about it. The truth is, that prior to this pandemic, neighborhood retail was dying; it was on its last breath. Chain stores have been wiping out neighborhood retail for, you know, years now. What I’m hoping is that the people who own the real estate have to sort of come to the realization that they have to lower their rents if they’re going to rent these places out at all.

LAURA: I mean … I don’t have a lot of faith that that’s going to happen.

LEAH: I know, but, actually, in San Francisco rental prices have already started going down. According to a recent article in the SF Chronicle, San Francisco is now the best city in the country to get a deal on apartment rentals. And this listings website called Zumper reported that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is down 21 percent from last year. It’s still high, of course, like over $2,000, but that’s still a pretty significant drop. And from what Vishaan said, it sounds like retail spaces might have to lower their rent, too. 

VISHAAN: The interesting thing is, is that the chain stores aren’t coming back to those ground-floor spaces, for the most part. The chain stores operate with the Amazons of the world, and that’s how they’re going to distribute most of their goods. So, I think, there’s an opportunity coming out of the pandemic for a resurgence in mom-and pop-retail. But I also think there’s the possibility to use a lot of those empty storefronts for what I call “social infrastructure.” So, in other words, small, cultural organizations, vocational training, senior centers, small health clinics, nursery schools, like, just I think there’s a way to activate the ground floor of our cities without every single spot being a store.

LAURA: I want to live in … your city.

VISHAAN: Well, this is part of why I both practice and am part of a school like Berkeley. In the university setting, you’re given the time to think and conjecture and help students imagine different futures, right? And I think this pandemic is, I mean, there’s so many awful things about it, but we’re also at a kind of social inflection point. And, you know, for years with our cities, we’ve been told that our cities are either kind of these bankrupt cities, or they’re these really sort of bougie cities. And there’s sort of nothing in between. I just think that there’s got to be a way to think about the city that’s neither of those things. And so that’s one of the things we try to empower our students to do is to, like, go out and help their communities rethink what they can be.

LEAH: I know that the engineers and the techies don’t make up the entirety of San Francisco, but there has been a lot of movement out of San Francisco and other cities. And I know that you said, that, historically speaking, there haven’t been permanent mass exoduses and loss of faith in cities. But I’m thinking, like, you know, a few days ago, Twitter announced that they’re leasing out their massive Twitter space for the foreseeable future, and all of their employees are saying remote. And, you know, that’s not a huge population of the city, but it’s a significant number. And it’s one of many places doing similar things. So, I don’t know, how do you see that impacting the city and … what kind of stuff might come in its place? 

VISHAAN: I can’t predict the future but I do know a lot about urban history. You know, dating back to the invention of the telephone, people thought that once we’ve got the right communications technology in place, then you know, everyone can work from their mountaintop, and we don’t need cities anymore. This is a very specific attitude in the West. It’s almost sort of biblical, this idea that cities are places of sin and evil and that moral people don’t spend their time in those places where people interact, right? And that’s just not who human beings are. I think the press has done a terrible job reporting on this mass exodus from cities [laughs], you know. And, like, I have all sorts of friends—in, like, New York and cities in other parts of the world—where there’s, like, story after story about people leaving for suburbia, but there’s zero data that backs up that there’s any kind of a huge trend going on.

LAURA: Bad press. Very bad. 

LEAH: Very, very bad. 

LAURA: We would never do anything like that. 

LEAH: You mean … like we did at the very beginning of this episode.

LAURA: Yeah. We did exactly that. [Laughs] But, the reality is, some people are leaving cities. So what are the numbers? Surely someone is measuring this.

LEAH: Well, so here’s a little more information: We don’t have a super clear picture yet, but, according to this Bloomberg article, “What We Actually Know About How Americans Are Moving During Covid,” which we’ll include in our showpage, there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that people are fleeing cities. And while there are some cities, like San Francisco and New York, that did see a surge of people moving out, it turns out most of these people were moving to other cities, like LA or Seattle. And, you know, we don’t know if those were temporary moves, but—if the 1918 Flu is any indicator—people moved away and then moved back in much greater numbers after the flu was over. 

VISHAAN: And it’s interesting being in the Bay Area because I think it’s especially a tech-utopian fantasy: This idea that you don’t need cities—that technology is going to solve the problem. But, again, I just returned to this basic thing of, like, who’s enjoying this exactly? I don’t know very many people who love being stuck in their house every day, working from home talking to a flat, glowing screen. What I think will be interesting to see is that, what the economy was all about coming into the pandemic and will surely return to at some level, is the competition for human capital. And so what’s really going to be interesting coming out of the pandemic is, what does the young talent want to do? Does the young talent really want to sit at home in their small apartment and work from there? Or do they want to be with other young talent where they can share ideas, go out for drinks after work, go out for coffee, have lunch in a park? You know, I think it’s going to be a no brainer. 

LEAH: I think he has a good point. I mean, Laura, would you rather sit in front of a screen of me? Or be in our old office staring at my face IRL? 

LAURA: I definitely prefer you IRL. But … I do love putting in a load of laundry between meetings. So …, yes, all things considered, I’d rather be back at the office. 

LEAH: And maybe work from home one day a week, so you can throw in that laundry in between our meetings. 

LAURA: Yeah. Best of both worlds.

VISHAAN: I think the smart companies are going to be the ones that realize that people need that kind of positive social friction, that cities allow for and kind of catalyze. That doesn’t mean that we need to go back to the old, congested, polluted city. I think this is an opportunity to rethink the negative aspects of what it meant to bring millions of people together into one place every day. Everything from commutes, to trash, to our mass transit systems, to biking to work, like, all that stuff, we should think about it in a better and more interesting way. But it doesn’t obviate the basic human desire to want to come together, interact with difference, and, like, know that by interacting with difference that that’s how they’re gonna grow as a human being. I just think that’s always gonna be the hands-down winner.

[MUSIC]

LAURA: But … there’s also one more thing that I sort of can’t square in my mind. Like, I want to be able to gather with people in public spaces, but also being outdoors in non-human-built environments is an enduring passion of mine. I cannot spend enough time in the woods, on hiking trails, in the ocean, or in rivers. I just cannot get enough. 

LEAH: Yeah, me too. In fact I just got back from the Grand Canyon, and I kind of want to move there. Like, right into the Grand Canyon. You know, like, I can sit on a rock and type on my laptop and dangle my toes in the Colorado River.

VISHAAN: It’s just extraordinary how many people have put their homes in these sensitive, ecological areas where they then have powerlines going, and they have a barbecue, and then they think it’s okay because they’ve got a Tesla. You know, people want to blame big oil companies, and, sure, sure go ahead, there’s plenty of land to go around. But people also need to look at their own lifestyles. They need to look in the mirror and understand what they shouldn’t be doing. 

LAURA: Is there some sort of happy medium?

VISHAAN: Of course, human beings need nature. It’s a big part of who we are as a species. But I think there’s ways to encounter nature, and be with nature, that isn’t so detrimental to it. And, so, that’s just the way, I think, we need to think. And cities are a big piece of that. Seventy percent of humankind will live in cities by the middle of the century. By the end of 2100, we’re going to have 10 billion people on this planet. And we’ve got to figure out how 10 billion people can live in harmony with the resources that the planet has. 

[MUSIC]

LAURA: So, the pandemic is just one of several things putting our country in turmoil these days. We’ve got a huge election coming up—in fact it will have happened just before our publication of this episode, so the future of our government is really up in the air. We asked Vishaan what he hopes will change and how it can help usher in the future for cities he envisions.

VISHAAN: What I’d really like to see change is to get out of this trap of big government and small government. It’s about smart government. And for, frankly, people of your generation to start having faith again in the idea of activist government. Because communities and DIY and doing things grassroots, there’s a lot of things you can do at that level. But you can’t build a subway line. You can’t rethink city housing policy. That happens at the scale of government. What I think hopefully people are waking up to is that when you’ve got populations in our society that are this vulnerable, it hurts everyone.

LEAH: Yeah, that seems inarguable. I love this idea of a reinvestment in public housing and public spaces. 

LAURA: Me too. I hope we do it. I hope we see the value in it and take action. And what he said about needing to involve the government really struck me because I do think our generation … wait, Leah. Are we in the same generation? I’m an old millennial. 

LEAH: Yes. I think I’m a mid-millennial.

LAURA: Oh, thank God. [Laughs] Okay, so, people in our generation don’t have a lot of trust in the government as a tool of action—and with good reason. Our economic system doesn’t work for a lot of people, as can be seen by the extreme wealth disparity in places like the Bay Area. And often change and really innovative problem solving has come from powerful grassroots organizations. And the government, in contrast, seems like a bunch of bureaucratic snails, gliding slowly down marbled halls to do more of the same. 

LEAH: Oh, my God, bureaucratic snails! I love it. [Laughs] But, yeah, I mean perhaps there are grassroots organizations that can help apply pressure to the government to better serve all of us. Although, it does seem shortsighted to try to only operate outside the confines of the government. At some point you have to get those snails on your side. But, okay, I have an unrelated question: What happened to Bob and Belinda??

LAURA: So, they’ve decided that, despite the pandemic and the challenges of urban life, they’re going to stick around. I mean, they love Oakland, this is a really dynamic and interesting place, and, most importantly, they have wonderful friends like me here. 

LEAH: It always comes back to you, doesn’t it?

LAURA: Always.

LEAH: You know, I feel strangely hopeful. 

LAURA: For Bob and Belinda?

LEAH: Well, yes, but also for cities. Like, there’s so much potential for change … reimagining what we value and how we function as a society. You know, on the other hand, if we don’t take this opportunity, what does that say about us?

[MUSIC]

LAURA: This The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph. Special thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti, Brooke Kottmann, and California magazine interns Maddy Weinberg, Boyce Buchanan, and Dylan Svoboda. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

LEAH: Ah, maybe we should just have some, like, farm noises at the end.

LAURA: Maybe a moo. A good, long moo.

LEAH: [Laughs] A good, long moo! That’s the title of my farm memoir.

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